Vytautas Landsbergis: "Ukrainians are now undergoing a long endurance test"
The first speaker of the Seimas of the independent Lithuania and EMP until recently on the way Europe is changing its perception of Russia, the shifting "center of Europeanness", and why it is crucial for Ukrainians to resist disenchantment
U.W.: It has been over a year since Russia launched its aggression against Ukraine, and de-facto against the West as well. Prior to this the East Europeans, and in particular the ones from the Baltics, who voiced their concerns about the Russian threat used to be dismissed as alarmists. In your opinion, how much has the assessment of the situation by the EU and their approaches changed since then?
It was a big surprise for Europe to see someone dying for the EU. That was the moment they began to appreciate Ukrainians. The reassessment of the events by Europe is gradual and partial. They are already willing to admit that we were right in forewarning them. But nobody wants to get involved in a war, so they turn a blind eye to the fact that war is indeed taking place. They are too afraid to face the truth and to start working on a strategy. Unfortunately, it will take some kind of an unprecedented blow for them to realize this. They need to regain their sense of dignity like Ukrainians did. And Ukrainians should be reminded that in spite of all the hardships and letdowns one shouldn't get disenchanted with dignity, because choosing enslavement would be a disaster.
Even if the EU gets divided into those who have the sense and dignity and those, who are willing to be bought, there will still be the first group and they are on your side, because you are on their side. The center of "Europeanness" will shift towards Ukraine despite all the problems of external and organizational democracy. But the spirit of freedom and dignity has to be preserved. And this brings us to the importance of the rule of law: without it dignity is lost.
U.W.: Actually, this is a very hard task for Ukrainians, because after the Maidan, more than a year of emotionally exhausting war they are now dealing with economic problems and have mounting unresolved questions for their new government. Your society experienced a somewhat similar situation in the 1990s. Is there are particular way to avoid disenchantment?
The situation in your society is in part typical, but what is untypical about it is the extreme spiritual uplift. Russia has faced a choice of holding on or letting go of its former colony. When Ukraine decided that it wants to change, it had military force used against it. That was the first phase of confrontation, which perhaps might have looked somewhat embarrassing, but in fact it was a historical triumph – the establishment of Ukrainian nation. That is how I see it. That's how Ukraine established itself, not in terms of geography or some population of certain territory, but the general will, the conscientiousness that united people regardless of their language or religious differences. This triumph is still felt, but new challenges arise, challenges to the psychological fortitude and the faith in building own state. What is crucial is whether the disgruntlement or, perhaps, anger comes to dominate. If this does happen, it will be bad news, as this is exactly what the enemy is counting on. We had a similar situation, albeit on a smaller scale. We found ourselves in a blockade designed to destroy everything so that the people would rise against those, who sought independence. It didn't happen, though, as the collapse (of the Soviet Union – Ed.) was inevitable. We managed to avoid chaos (chaos meaning freedom without democracy), while Russia didn't. Striving towards freedom and experiencing partial freedom in the first years of the Yeltsin term, but not experiencing justice and the rule of law left people disillusioned. This is what happened in the 1920s in Germany and Italy, and after the Cold War it happened in Russia. It was the arrival of populism in the shape of fascism already familiar to us. Ukraine should strive to be very different to Russia both in terms of the state system and the type of economy. You should move away from dictator economy, the system that's in a way much alike the Latin American one with extremely rich generals. The local generals, that is oligarchs, can have certain preconditions to be allowed into the government. But there should be some scrutiny to determine whether that person is to become a rich dictator or not. It wasn't the case in Russia and the dictator did come to power.
Ukrainians are now undergoing a long endurance test. What Ukrainians received when they broke free is a chance for democracy. And it shouldn't be lost, it has to be maintained. I'm hearing that democratic transformations are taking place in Ukraine, the new government is taking the steps, so Putin and his cohorts are now having to wreak frustration before Ukraine manages to reform itself. Therefore it should be explained to Ukrainians that they are now moving towards changes they've been anticipating for 25 years. The Maidan was merely a key that opened the door, and now what lies ahead is not just a happy jog towards the finish, but hard work on tenacity and power to resist frustration, when the ones struggling in Ukraine will be shown how enjoy a better life in the meantime. But one can have golden loafs of bread on the table, like Yanukovych did, or have a well-earned loaf of bread on your table. There is crucial difference.
In order to wreak frustration tremendous work is being conducted for brainwashing, and this skullduggery is effective. The Russian media is an instrument of mass brainwashing. But people must be able to tell the difference between that and the real media and information.
U.W.: The general public is so far not able to tell the difference, because of the lacking "information hygiene" and critical reflection about what they see in the media. And this problem is not exclusive to Ukraine. How can one fight against this in the current circumstances?
One shouldn't repeat Putin's tales. I remember when Lithuania was making its decision about the course towards the EU (the referendum on joining the EU took place in Lithuania in 2003. 90% voted in favour and in 2004 Lithuania joined the EU – Ed.) we had Romano Prodi visiting (President of the European Commission in 1999-2004 – Ed.). He was told about the public movements against Europe and then speaking in the Seimas he said that he had never seen a single EU tank forcing us to join the united Europe. On the other hand there was Russia, quite a terrifying alternative. It's hard to convey this to other countries that never experienced living under Soviet communism. They escaped the Stalin's curse, they never really experienced being "under Stalin".
Today Russia's information warfare is mobilizing people to an extent. There are countermeasures being taken. For too long have we turned a blind eye to the necessity of doing this work, but now it is being talked about openly, we're getting to real action like banning the lying TV channels with propaganda of war against Ukraine. The indoctrination, however, is carried out using the old paradigm: "This is a righteous war. They must be destroyed because they are different. Different means fascist". So we should be more responsible when talking about this. And we must constantly bring up examples of brainwashed people believing in a Russian boy being crucified in Ukraine just because he spoke Russian or something along those lines. People must be shown that this is what Hitlerites did, saying "Let's go kill Jews because they drank blood of our children". It's the same thing.
Keep reminding the brainwashed people that what is being done to them is a crime. Turning people into bloodthirsty animals is a crime.
In January 1991, when Russian tank crews pushed forwards the people, the latter would yell "fascists" at them. And it worked. And so it will work today. Seeing the threat of Russian fascism the Ukrainian society is faced with will be unifying. In case the Russian fascism is depicted as partially righteous and justified, there will be no Ukraine. It will be destroyed.
U.W.: In your opinion as a former EU parliamentary, is Europe really prepared to defend itself and its values?
One should always rely one himself first and foremost. That much we've learned already. We have lost a lot thinking that the defence didn't necessitate much investment and that the NATO would protect the country and all would be taken care of. Now we've realized this. We brought back military conscription in Lithuania and there are a number of other programmes. Even if there is no war, we'll have good defence capability in few years. We've had socialists and communists in power for almost eight years. Everything went into decline, just like for you during the Yanukovych era. We were also told that we don't need that (defence capability – Ed.) because it makes us angry. So it turns out to be okay for them to be hostile, but it's somehow not okay for us to be precautious?
Vytautas Landsbergis is Lithuanian politician and public figure, first head of Lithuania after it regained independence from the USSR. He served as Speaker of the Seimas in 1992 and 1996-2000, being one of the founders and leaders of the liberal-conservative party Homeland Union. In 2004-2014, Mr. Landsbergis was Member of the European Parliament, member of the European People's Party group